Geographically isolated by the immense Himalayan Mountains, the Kingdom of Bhutan – or Land of the Thunder Dragon as it’s locally known – effortlessly falls under the category of most beautiful travel destinations in the world. Nonetheless, it receives a relatively low number of tourists because of the government’s strict policies aimed at preservation of Bhutanese culture and tradition, and its levy of a hefty USD $200 a day fee that scares away many travellers and most backpackers.
Bordering China to the north, and divided from Nepal by India’s province of Sikkim, the landscape reveals an overwhelming range of verdant alpine valleys, towering snow-capped peaks and glacial rivers. Roughly the size of Switzerland, but with only ten percent of its population, Bhutan offers the closest thing possible to a window back in time. Adults and children are required to wear traditional dress to work and school, novice monks climb over rickety wooden bridges and prayer wheels can be found on every corner. To say nothing of the enormous(and detailed!) phallic images plastered across the walls of every farmhouse, meticulously painted in bright colours to bring good luck and drive away evil spirits. One cannot, however, escape globalization entirely as diesel trucks careen down the single lane roads and elderly monks take calls on their cellphones. Who knows what kind of reckless influence the television, introduced in the 90’s, will have on the populace!
The greatest draw to this Buddhist country is, of course, its natural environment. Incredible treks into the wilderness can range from day hikes to month long expeditions complete with oxygen tanks and yaks. For those less inclined to push themselves to their physical limits, bird-watchers and horticulturalists will be enthralled at the thousands of species of birds and flowers viewed in the spring and summer months. Luxury travellers are also in luck as a handful of five-star hotels have opened up to accommodate international celebrities and movie stars looking for a chance to get away from it all.
But no matter their reason for visiting Bhutan, travellers will be touched by the warmth and generosity of its people, the charm of its art and architecture, and the magnificence of its natural beauty.
Quaint Charm and Traditional Architecture
Just outside of the charming town of Paro lies the country’s only international airport. Tucked away in a valley, the steep approach from a Drukair flight (the country’s national carrier) is a harrowing, if not sweaty palm inducing experience. Visitors will be rewarded immediately walking down the single main street, lined with intricately framed wooden storefronts and scenes of bright red strings of chili drying in the sun. Make sure to pay a visit to the Ringpung Dzong (also know as Paro Dzong) where, if you get your timing right, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elaborate mask dances of a religious festival. Although every district will have its own awe-inducing Dzong – serving multiple functions as a fortress, monastery and administrative social center – the old cantilever bridge, and immense white walls of the Paro Dzong should not be missed. Other sites worth checking out are the National Museum of Bhutan, and the ruined Drukgyel Dzong, located 15km outside of the city centre.
The greatest site in Paro however is the gravity-defying Taktsang Monastery (or Tiger’s Nest Temple) precariously clinging to a sheer cliff wall, overlooking the valley below. The fairly steep 90-minute hike up the mountain cuts through lush pine forest and can be eased by renting a pony and handler. Once at the top, the view of the monastery hidden behind prayer flags and wreathed in the swirling mist is a breathtaking and absolutely unforgettable experience.
The ‘Big’ City and Cultural Identity
Sprawling the length of an entire valley, and following the bend of the Wang Chuu river lies the capital city of Thimphu. This is where Bhutan is seeing most of its urban development as it rapidly continues to grow in size and population. What Thimphu may lack in the way of charm, it certainly makes up for in character. Women wash sudsy clothes along the riverbanks, children play together in oversized clothes with make-shift toys, and men drink copious amounts of beer while engaging in the national pastime, archery. Somehow never failing to miss the impossibly tiny target, no matter how much they seem to drink.
The massive white-walled, multi-storied buildings housed in the Tashichho Dzong function as the seat of Bhutan’s civil government. Young monks in richly coloured red robes hurry back and forth on errands, while some take a break from their daily duties to peek curiously out from intricate wooden lace balconies.
Pay a visit to the School of Traditional Arts to see young students busy at work weaving, painting, sculpting, and wood carving impressive pieces of Buddhist artwork. If you have time, stop in at the beautiful National Library building, where sacred religious texts and manuscripts are being preserved for future generations.
Trekking On Top of The World
With soaring snow-capped peaks reaching well about 7000 metres, serious trekking in Bhutan is not for the faint-hearted. The Snowman Trek, the most difficult route of all, takes 24 days and requires weeks spent at altitudes over 4000 metres. While the popular Jhomolhari trek takes a little over a week, and takes hikers through alpine pastures and yak herders on their daily rounds.
Hiking through secluded mountain passes, past crystalline alpine lakes and through rhododendron forests offer an opportunity to experience the real wilderness at its best. Surefooted ponies and yaks trudge alongside hikers with camping gear, as guides ready a meal of butter tea and emadatse (chili and cheese), a welcome delicacy after a hard day. Another option is the easier Gasa Hot Spring Trek, popular with the Bhutanese because of the supposed, curative powers of its waters.
Spring and Fall are both good times to visit, although the window for high-altitude trekking is limited to a few weeks in April and October. No matter what season you choose to visit, there will always be something magical about a journey to one of the world’s most remote kingdoms.